Imagine you’re a Nets fan during the 2015-2016 season. You’re enduring a disastrous season that ultimately ends with the team having won only 21 games. The only two players on the roster who could be considered above league average are Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, both 27 years old and nowhere close to being elite. The team’s other top scorers are Sean Kilpatrick, a 32-year-old Jarrett Jack, and a 34-year-old Joe Johnson. The only player who could possibly be considered a promising, young prospect is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who even if he reaches his full potential is probably just an average starter. Times are tough – and that’s before you remember that you control none of your next three 1st round picks.
The Brooklyn Nets redefined what it meant to be a bad NBA team. They were awful and had no real chance of improving for at least 3 years. As could be expected, the Nets only averaged 23 wins over that period – and unlike most bad NBA teams, they had absolutely no incentive to lose. It was a truly remarkable level of incompetence, and a truly awful time to be a Nets fan.
This season, it finally looks like the Nets have turned a corner. Only 47 games into the season, they already have 24 wins and are comfortably in a playoff spot in the East. While they are still short on elite talent, they do have a few promising building blocks like Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell, and Caris LeVert. It will take many more moves for them to become a true contender, but now there is actually a light at the end of the tunnel. Which raises the question – who are the new Nets?
To be honest, there are a surprisingly large number of candidates. We spend so much time focusing on the top teams in the league that we forget that there are a lot of really bad teams. It’s like half the league realized the Warriors were going to dominate the league and decided to just tank instead. Or maybe there are just a lot of poorly managed teams…
Let’s start with the teams that are nowhere near Nets-level bad, but have made their fair share of mistakes.
Reasons for Hope: When you’re based in South Beach, there is always hope for brighter days ahead. All you need to do is hope some superstar free agent likes the beach and doesn’t like state income tax, and you’re all set. The Heat have some nice, young pieces on their roster in Justice Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Bam Adebayo.
Reasons for Despair: Unfortunately, the Heat haven’t really been doing themselves any favors. They panicked and grossly overpaid Dion Waiters and James Johnson. The Tyler Johnson poison-pill contract has blown up in their faces, as expected. Ditto for Hassan Whiteside. They won’t have any cap relief for at least a couple seasons, and their unprotected 2021 1st rounder is in Philadelphia. And while they have a couple nice players, none of them are true game changers.
Reasons for Hope: Bradley Beal is a borderline top-20 player and he’s signed to a very reasonable contract. Less than half the teams in the league can say that about one of their players. John Wall and Otto Porter are also both above average NBA players…
Reasons for Despair: However, both are being paid like superstars! Wall’s contract is possibly the worst in the league. It doesn’t seem like he takes good care of his body, which explains why he keeps getting injured. And even when he’s on the court, he might have the worst body language in the league. That doesn’t sound like someone you want to pay $40 million a year. Throw in Ian Mahinmi, and the Wizards might be leading the league in awful contracts. But don’t worry Wizards fans – I’m sure Ernie is the right man to turn this around.
New Orleans Pelicans
Reasons for Hope: Anthony Davis is a beast. He’s in the conversation for most skilled big man of all time. He’s that good. Jrue Holiday is also a borderline All-Star, and it looks like his injury woes might finally be behind him.
Reasons for Despair: AD is great – but he also might not be around for long. Even though it’s still a year and a half away, Davis’ free agency is hanging over the organization like a dark cloud. This is a team that needs to win now in order to convince their superstar to stay long-term, but they might have the thinnest roster in the league (and are currently well outside the playoffs). You also have to wonder, if AD leaves, will the Pelicans be next to head out of town?
The Bottom 10
Now it’s time to leave bad behind and look at the truly dreadful teams. We’ll count down from 10 to 1, finishing up with the poor team who has “earned” the title of the new Nets.
10. Atlanta Hawks
Reasons for Hope: It actually seems like they have a plan. Sadly, this is the bar in today’s NBA – if your franchise actually has a clear direction, then you’re better than 30% of the teams. Thanks to their Process-esque strategy, the Hawks have collected some interesting young pieces like Trae Young, John Collins, and Taurean Prince. Other than Miles Plumlee they don’t have that many bad contracts, and they also have some additional 1st round picks to work with…
Reasons for Despair: Unfortunately their extra picks aren’t as good as they seem. Cleveland’s 1st rounder is top-10 protected for the next two seasons before it converts to two 2nd round picks. And we can’t forget that that extra pick they have from Dallas came at the expense of Luka Doncic. Had the Hawks just drafted Luka with the 3rd pick in last year’s draft, they wouldn’t be mentioned in this article at all. Now if Trae Young actually develops into the next Steph Curry, all will be forgiven – but we’re not too optimistic…
9. New York Knicks
Reasons for Hope: Kevin Durant. Seriously, that’s their biggest reason to be optimistic about the future. At this point, the chatter is loud enough that it seems like KD to the Knicks might actually happen. And if it does, the trajectory of the franchise is completely changed. Even without Durant though, there are still some bright spots on the Knicks. Assuming he gets back to close to full strength, Porzingis is still one of the more promising players in the league. Kevin Knox has some potential as well, as does Frankie Smokes (although it’s becoming less and less likely that he’ll live up to the hype of being the #8 pick). And even though it’s no South Beach, the bright lights of New York have some appeal to free agents – or at least that’s what Knicks fans keep telling themselves…
Reasons for Despair: James Lawrence Dolan. Quite possibly the worst, most meddlesome owner in the league. It seems like Dolan’s incompetence has infected the rest of the front office. The brutal contracts handed out to Tim Hardaway Jr. and, to a lesser extent, Courtney Lee, are preventing the Knicks from making the massive free agency splash all fans crave. Joakim Noah is not even playing for them anymore, but will still count for $6 million against their cap until 2022. Even if they get Durant, we’re not totally convinced that they will be able to build a winning team around him. But at least the days of trading 1st round picks for Andrea Bargnani seem to be over!
8. Chicago Bulls
Reasons for Hope: They have a Leadership Council – what more could you possibly ask for! Yes, a team that almost had a “full-blown mutiny” earlier this season somehow doesn’t have one of the seven worst outlooks… And that’s because they actually have some decent players. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are both potential building blocks. The Zach LaVine contract might not be as horrendous as first feared (although it’s still not great). Chicago is a big market that could potentially entice some free agents, and the Bulls should enter the offseason with some cap space.
Reasons for Despair: There’s just not a lot of talent in the Windy City. Other than Markkanen and Carter Jr. there aren’t really any players on the rosters to get excited about, and even those two don’t seem like they have superstar potential. Paying Zach LaVine and Cristiano Felicio nearly $30 million combined for the foreseeable future is also not a good look. Let’s also not forget that they thought it was necessary to form a Leadership Council.
7. Phoenix Suns
Reasons for Hope: They’re young! All of their core players are 25 years old or younger. And some of them actually seem to be good. If Devin Booker played in the East he’d be a borderline All-Star. Deandre Ayton is having a very impressive rookie season, at least on the offensive end. T.J. Warren is a solid player. Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender are not far removed from being the 4th player picked in their drafts… and that’s about the only good thing we can say about either of them. Even the Trevor Ariza signing ended up netting the Suns Kelly Oubre Jr., who could potentially be another interesting piece for them moving forward. They only have one bad contract on their cap sheet (Ryan Anderson), so they should have some cap space moving forward. And in all likelihood they’ll have another top-5 pick in the upcoming draft – maybe they can finally get a point guard!
Reasons for Despair: This has been the story with the Suns for a while. Oh, they have a lot of nice, young pieces – maybe they’ll be good eventually! In reality, Phoenix might have just collected a lot of complimentary players with no true game changers (although Booker and Ayton both still have promise). It’s not hard to see where they went wrong: in 2016, they picked Bender and Marquese Chriss in the top 10 when they could have had Buddy Hield/Jamal Murray and Domantas Sabonis instead. In 2017, they grabbed Josh Jackson at #4, with De’Aaron Fox going to Sacramento with the next pick (don’t worry, it’s not like the Suns needed a point guard…). And even though Ayton looks like he has All-Star potential, we can’t help but wonder how the Suns would look if they took Luka Doncic instead.
Phoenix does have a new GM now, so maybe their drafting woes are over… but it also seems like the top line of James Jones’ GM resume reads “friend of LeBron James”. Amazingly, we haven’t even brought up their ownership yet. Robert Sarver appears to lack both patience and a strong awareness of the current state of the team (while we’re at at, he’s also cheap and doesn’t really care about the fans). This offseason, they decided they were ready to compete and lavished Ariza with a $15 million deal, meaning that we can’t even give the Suns “it’s okay, they’re tanking” points as they aren’t trying to be bad – they just are! The Phoenix Suns are like a canvas with some nice spots here and there, but still tons of blank space – and we don’t have much faith in the guy holding the brush.
6. Sacramento Kings
Reasons for Hope: This season has gone better for the Kings than anyone could have reasonably expected. They’ve hovered a couple games out of a playoff spot for most of the year, and while they’re still unlikely to make it in a stacked Western Conference, Kings fans finally have something to be excited about. De’Aaron Fox looks like a stud. Buddy Hield now seems like a legitimate building block. The rest of their roster is filled with interesting players, and they’re actually kind of fun to watch. Better yet, unlike so many teams they don’t really have any bad contracts and they will enter the offseason with tons of cap space.
Reasons for Despair: We’re not entirely sure how the Kings get much better from here. Sure, Fox, Hield, and some of their other young guys should hopefully continue to get better, but unless they dramatically improve the Kings might never be more than a fringe playoff team. After the last decade-plus of mediocrity, we’re sure Kings fan would take being a fringe playoff team, but routinely finishing 9th to 11th is basically NBA purgatory. Their 1st round pick belongs to either the Celtics or Sixers this season, and unless they get some lottery luck they aren’t likely to get a top-end pick in future seasons. And while free agency offers another path to improvement, Sacramento is unlikely to attract any star players, meaning they might have to settle for overpaying second tier guys. It really looks like the Kings will need either luck or a series of shrewd moves if they want to elevate to being legitimate contenders… and since Vlade Divac is in charge, we guess that means they’re relying on luck.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Reasons for Hope: Collin Sexton is young and less than a year removed from being the 8th pick in the draft. When healthy, Kevin Love is still a borderline All-Star (at least in the East…). Yes we know, we’re really grasping at straws here. Honestly, the biggest reason for hope is that the Cavaliers are really bad right now. They definitely weren’t planning to be bad, so we still have no faith in their management and ownership, but they are likely to finish the year with a 14% chance of winning the Zion sweepstakes. And that’s before you factor in how the league will definitely consider rigging another lottery in their favor. Yes, they technically owe the Hawks a future 1st, but with how bad the Cavs are, that pick will almost certainly convert to two future 2nd rounders. Also working in their favor: they play in the East, and their litany of bad contracts (Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson, and Matthew Dellavedova) all expire after next season.
Reasons for Despair: Unfortunately, even when the Cavs have cap space again, there is nothing in their recent history to suggest that star players will want to come there unless they grew up within 50 miles of the arena. The only thing they have left to show for their recent Kyrie trade is Collin Sexton. Their current “star” is already 30, has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and is once again injured. Oh, and they owe him $120 million over the next four seasons, meaning that he’s dangerously toeing the line between being an actual asset and an albatross contract that they’ll need to attach a sweetener to in order to move. Then there’s Dan Gilbert, who isn’t James Dolan bad… but he’s close. It’s easy to feel bad for Cavs fans. We just hope that they’re enjoying that 2016 title.
4. Orlando Magic
Reasons for Hope: You might not realize it since the Magic haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, but there is actually talent on Orlando’s roster. Nikola Vucevic has been a stud all season, and should easily be an All-Star thanks to the watered-down East. Aaron Gordon is a tantalizing talent who is still only 23 years old and could eventually put it all together. Evan Fournier is fine (but definitely overpaid), and Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba are intriguing, young prospects.
Reasons for Despair: While the Magic have some assets, Vucevic is their only All-Star caliber player and he’s an impending free agent. It’s unclear whether any of their next three most important assets – Gordon, Isaac, and Bamba – can actually be on the floor at the same time. They’re currently relying on D.J. Augustin as their starting point guard… and no, their regular starting point guard isn’t injured. The Magic desperately need a star guard to make them a legitimate contender, but their ability to acquire one is complicated by the fact that a) they aren’t bad enough to get a top pick (without some lottery luck), and b) no star free agent is likely to decide to take their talents to Orlando. The Magic as currently constructed might be trapped in NBA purgatory – too good to get a top pick, but too bad to ever be a playoff contender. Sadly their best path forward might be to let their best player (Vucevic) walk and go into full-tank mode. When that’s potentially your best option, you know you’re in pretty bad shape.
3. Charlotte Hornets
Reasons for Hope: They play in the East, which means that despite having an uninspiring roster they might sneak into the playoffs this year. If you make the playoffs, you can’t be the new Nets, right? The Hornets have secured a couple of good, but not great prospects in the last two drafts in Miles Bridges and Malik Monk. And Kemba Walker has elevated his game to another level this season, likely earning himself an All-Star selection in the process.
Reasons for Despair: Kemba is a free agent after the season, and it feels like the Hornets are faced with a lose-lose scenario. Either they sign Kemba to a max or near-max deal, meaning they’d be committing $30-$40 million a year to an undersized point guard who is almost 30. Or they let him walk, and are left with basically no cap space and arguably one of the worst rosters in the league. Why would they have no cap space to replace Kemba? Because Charlotte is scheduled to pay Nic Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist a combined $85 million next season. Not one of those players is an above average starter anymore. Finally, we can’t ignore Michael Jordan’s track record as an NBA owner. Since becoming an investor in the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2006, the team has won 3 playoff games… total. And we can’t forget that the trajectory of the franchise would have been completely different if Jordan hadn’t fallen in love with Frank the Tank (who is currently in his 4th season and averaging under 6 points a game…).
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Reasons for Hope: The three best players on the Grizzlies are probably better than the top three guys of any other team on this list. Mike Conley has the most appearances on “NBA All-Star Snubs” lists this past decade – although he’s still waiting for his first appearance in the actual game… Marc Gasol is still a high-end starter at the very least, and can make contributions to a winning team on both ends of the floor. And if it wasn’t for Luka, there would be a lot more “wow, Jaren Jackson Jr. is really good” takes floating around the Internet.
Reasons for Despair: Unfortunately, NBA rosters have more than just 3 players… After the three guys mentioned above, their next top scorers are JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple, and Shelvin Mack. None of those players are going to be part of the next great Grizzles team. The Chandler Parsons contract was a massive risk as soon as the pen hit the paper, and has unsurprisingly been a cap-clogging disaster. Six months in, Kyle Anderson’s new contract isn’t looking too promising either. And we haven’t even touched on the two biggest elephants in the room! Memphis has finally bit the bullet and started listening for offers on Gasol and Conley, so their top-end talent might not be around for long. We suspect that the return for either player will underwhelm Memphis fans: Gasol is a 33-year-old center who doesn’t run the floor particularly well, and could opt out after this season if he doesn’t like his new situation. Meanwhile, Conley is 31 and owed a lot of money – and a lot of teams already have their starting point guard position figured out.
Worst of all, Memphis owes a future 1st rounder to Boston. It’s top 8 protected this season, meaning it’s unlikely to convey in 2019 given the Grizzlies’ recent slide (and their openness to trading their two stars). But this pick will linger over the franchise, and potentially prevent the full-scale rebuild that they so desperately need. Now, the obvious question is why did the Grizzlies trade this pick? What game-changing player did they get in return? The answer – Jeff Green. You’d think GMs would have learned not to trade actual assets for Jeff Green. Now, on the plus side, the Grizzlies managed to flip Jeff Green the following season, and tricked the Clippers into giving up a 1st round pick of their own. Now, what did Memphis do with this pick? Traded it to, you guessed it – Boston, for Deyonta Davis and Rade Zagorac. Chris Wallace everybody – he couldn’t even keep his Brookses straight so he had to trade one away…
1. Detroit Pistons
Reason(s) for Hope: There is only one – they are nowhere near as bad off as the 2015 Nets…
Reasons for Despair: We’ve touched on the idea of NBA purgatory throughout this piece. Nothing is worse than routinely finishing just outside of a playoff spot. Sure, sometimes you might sneak into the 8th seed, but your stay in the playoffs won’t be for long. If the goal of every NBA team is to win championships, and it should be, this is the position you want to avoid. It was the acknowledgement of this fact that led to The Process. Unfortunately for Detroit, they’ve reserved their spot in NBA purgatory for at least the next two seasons and they’ve paid in full – no refunds. Currently they’re “battling” for a playoff spot in the East, but in all likelihood they’ll come up just short and finish 9th or 10th. For most teams, they could say “oh well, there’s always next season”. But for Detroit, next year will be the exact same – they already have over $100 million committed to Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, and the remainder of Josh Smith’s buy-out. Their situation doesn’t improve much for the 2020-2021 season either, as Griffin and Drummond are scheduled to make $65 million combined (assuming Drummond picks up his juicy $28.8 million player option). That means that they’ll probably keep ending up with the 10th or 11th pick in the draft, so unless they get lucky they won’t be able to add an instant-impact rookie.
To make matters worse, they have no promising young players who could theoretically get better. Since 2014, they’ve only picked in the first round three times – Stanley Johnson (8th in 2015), Henry Ellenson (18th in ’16), and Luke Kennard (12th in ’17) – and every time they’ve come away with a bust. Their best pick over that period was Spencer Dinwiddie in the second round in 2014, but they traded him away for Cameron Bairstow (who had 44 points… in his entire NBA career). Again, this is by no means to say that this situation is as bad as the Nets. Being a fringe playoff team stuck with bad contracts and no real assets is infinitely better than being one of the league’s worst teams and not controlling your own picks. But we set out to find the team that has the longest, least promising road back to actual relevance, and we found it in Detroit.